By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
The Portland Timbers in 2018 were like a well-built pickup truck. They weren’t anything special, but they were sturdy. Without ever feeling like it was the best vehicle out there, one day you looked down and saw that that baby had 250,000 miles on it and was still going strong. Similarly, the 2018 Timbers were a decidedly average team that just kept truckin’ along until they found themselves playing for the MLS Cup. To get back there in 2019, they will need their aging midfield to continue to drink from the fountain of youth, overcome some depth issues, and solidify the attack, but as long as they keep getting their oil changed every 3,000 miles, they could find themselves vying for another trophy.
2018 in Review
That five game rolling xG graph above tells the story of Portland’s 2018 (follow @mlsfantasystats, who made all our team summary graphics). An early season road trip (get used to that phrase) saw the Timbers with a negative six goal differential and 83 shots allowed after their first five games. The low point was 4-0 loss at Red Bull Arena to NYRB’s 3rd string lineup.
But once the team returned to Providence Park their form and fortunes changed, leading to a 15 game undefeated streak that saw them steadily climb the Western Conference standings. During that time the team’s striker for four seasons and all-time 2nd leading goal scorer, Fanendo Adi, lost his job to newcomer Samuel Armenteros and was ultimately traded to Cincinnati FC for General Allocation Money. But the summer success wore off and a combination of injuries and apathy from Armenteros saw him lose the job to youngster Jeremy Ebobbise. From August 4th to the end of the season the Timbers had an xGD of -0.95, 4th worst in the league. Still, they beat RSL twice at the end of the season, and seemed to be on the upswing as they entered the playoffs.
We all know how it went from there. A win in Dallas got them to the quarterfinals, an epic shootout got them past their biggest rivals to the North, and a Sebastian Blanco goalazo saw them continue their improbable run to MLS Cup. They were overmatched in Atlanta in the final, but the surprising postseason run helped Timbers supporters forgive the otherwise mediocre season.
Just how average were the Timbers last season? They finished with the 8th most points in MLS. Their Total Shot Ratio of 0.51 was 13th. They were 8th in xGF, 11th in xGA, and 10th in xGD. They took the 11th most shots, and allowed the 13th fewest. They were 17th in defensive actions, and 13th in defensive actions against. During the regular season, the Timbers were about an average team, as their record reflected. But as is often the theme of the MLS Playoffs, it was the hottest team in the Western Conference that made it to Cup, not the best team.
Departures (from MLSsoccer.com)
M - Victor Arboleda (35 minutes in 2018)
M - Lawrence Olum (1741 minutes)
GK - Jake Gleeson (576 minutes)
D - Roy Miller (0 minutes)
M - Jack Barmby (0 minutes)
D - Alvas Powell (2195 minutes)
D - Liam Ridgewell (1157 minutes)
The notable losses here are Jake Gleeson, Lawrence Olum, Alvas Powell and Liam Ridgewell. Gleeson, the only remaining player from the Timbers’ USL existence, finally departs after almost a decade in the organization. After a solid 2017 season he lost the starting job midway through the 2018 season and had his season end early because of injury. Olum provided some quality depth in the defensive midfield and at centerback.
The two bigger departures are Powell and Ridgewell, who have both been consistent starters on the Timbers’ backline since they both joined the team in 2014. Ridgewell was one of the highest paid centerbacks in the league, and battled frequent injuries which limited him to a combined 36 appearances over the last two seasons. Powell, a favorite of Caleb Porter’s, fell out of favor with coach Giovani Savarese. He broke through with the Timbers as a teenager, but seemed to plateau as a player soon thereafter. Both Ridgewell and Powell were vital parts of the 2015 championship squad and were automatic starters for most of their time in Portland, but the team learned to win without them so their losses aren’t monumental.
M - Marvin Loria (Signed from Timbers 2)
M - Renzo Zambrano (Signed from Timbers 2)
GK - Aljaz Ivacic (Signed from Slovenia)
D - Claude Dielna (1412 minutes for New England)
That’s a pretty short list, especially when you consider that the first three names on the list potentially won’t play a minute for the first team in 2019. It’s not as bad if you include the imminent TAM signing (update: it’s now official) of fullback Jorge Moreira from River Plate, who will be the starting right back. Dielna was a DP for New England the last two seasons, but went from a regular starter to outside of the 18 midway through 2018. He will hope to cement his status as the most talented Claude in MLS history.
When Savarese arrived, it looked like a shrewd hire by the Timbers’ front office. Coming off of multiple NASL cup runs with the Cosmos, was ready to jump to the next level. Leading his team to the final in his debut season more than justifies his hiring, but for every coaching success, Savarese seemed make an equally confusing error. He did plenty of tinkering, including playing Asprilla at striker for much of the first half of the season. He rarely rotated his top players, as exemplified by a three games (in three different time zones) in seven days stretch of August where an already sluggish Diego Valeri started in all three losses.
But he also showed great ability to adapt. After five away losses to begin the season in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Porter had been playing before he arrived, Savarese switched to a Christmas tree 4-3-2-1 that set the team straight, which he stuck with for most of the season. He earned an impressive draw in Atlanta during the regular season by deploying a 3-5-2 that frustrated the potent Atlanta attack, tried a 4-4-2 a couple times during the summer slump, and neatly bookended the season by returning to the 4-2-3-1. Depending on how liberal you are with your interpretation of the formations, Savarese used as many as eight different setups last season. For comparison’s sake, Caleb Porter used only three different formations in the preceding two seasons combined.
Perhaps no game was a better embodiment of Savarese’s coaching abilities and failures than the second playoff leg in Seattle, where he out-coached Brian Schmetzer with his tactful substitutions (thanks largely to tha playoff gawd Dairon Asprilla), but then, along with most his players, appeared to NOT KNOW THE EXTRA TIME RULES, thinking that his team had won on away goals. Think about that for a second. I would be irate with my recreational beer league teammates if they didn’t understand the playoff rules. The idea that a professional coach and his players wouldn’t know them is both inexcusable and embarrassing. Here’s to him and his staff learning the new playoff rules before the 2019 season begins.
In 2019 it seems unlikely the team’s identity will be altered much. Portland’s formation may still change ocassionaly (though probably not as much as it did in 2018), but the general philosophy likely won’t. The Timbers will play direct, and attempt to catch teams on the counter attack. They’ll likely have less than 50% possession on the season, but will get quality chances from their potent attackers and speedy wingers. Portland completed 30% of their crosses last season, second best in the league (though they attempted only the 16th most). That’s because they usually put their crosses in before the defense was set. Expect more of the same in 2019.
Attinella looks to have the starting job locked down. He was as good a value as any keeper in MLS last season, saving 3.07 more goals than expected, on a more than affordable contract (Tim Howard makes 20 times as much). Steve Clark will likely fight for the backup spot with Aljaž Ivačič. Ivačič is mostly an unknown and is recovering from a stress fracture, but here’s a video of his final game in Slovenia, where he allowed six goals and looked glued to the ground, except when he was falling over. He’ll probably be a T2 player in 2019.
Jorge Villafaña returned midway through 2018 to reclaim his leftback spot. He is a solid defender who loves to get forward and send in crosses with his juicy left foot, but is sometimes a defensive liability on set pieces.
Though some fans have questioned the need, I think it was clear the Timbers required an upgrade at right back. Take a look at the heat map below. Once you realize the figure is not a confused penguin but instead shows the number of missed challenges by defenders, the picture becomes pretty clear - the right fullback (mostly Powell, ocassionaly Valentin) was a defensive liability. The team hopes Jorge Moreira will be that upgrade, which will push iron man Zarek Valentin to the bench. Moreira was a regular for River Plate in 2016/2017, but only has 12 appearances over the last couple seasons after a slow recovery from a knee injury in late 2017. Portland will hope he’s fully recovered and can quickly step in to plug the defensive holes on the right.
Larrys Mabiala has proved himself a quality centerback, especially in the air, and led the team in minutes played in 2018. He will anchor the defense again in 2019.
Newcomer Claude Dielna will hope to fill the shoes of Ridgewell as the left central defender. One cause for concern is that Dielna is a different type of player than Ridgewell, who led the Timbers in passing vertical (average distance towards the opponent’s goal of completed passes) during his time there, averaging 11.6 yards. In fact, over the last four seasons, no field player in MLS averaged more vertical distance on his completed passes. Even more impressive is that Ridgewell actually completed his passes at a significantly higher rate than expected (79.0% completed, 73.8% expected). In other words, Ridgewell’s completed passes went more towards the opponent’s goal than any other player’s, and he completed them 5.2% more often than the average player could have expected. Conversely, Dielna’s average pass only goes 7.3 yards towards the opponent’s goalline, and he completes them 73.7% of the time, barely better than the expected rate of 72.5%.
That’s a bunch of complicated numbers, but it boils down to this: the loss of Ridgewell could mean a bit of bite is taken out of Portland’s rapid counter-attacks, as the ball won’t be flowing as quickly forward from the back.
Julio Cascante has started next to Mabiala for most of the preseason, but has been very inconsistent. Cascante has a different style compared to the rest of the Portland centerbacks because of his comfort with the ball at his feet, but he’s sometimes too comfortable and it leads to some confounding unforced errors. And he’s no Ridgewell either - his average pass only goes 5.5 yards towards the opponent’s goal.
I should note here that the Ceremonial Tchillo Tschuma Award for Reading Too Much into the Preseason goes to the shaky status of the defense. The team has attempted to play a higher than usual defensive line in their exhibition matches (similar to the one that failed at the start the 2018 season), and it hasn’t yet worked. There’s still time to work things out, but the left side of the defense has looked especially vulnerable. If there’s any concern for Timbers fans, the left centerback position vacated by Ridgewell is the leading contender. Unless the defensive line starts clicking, Savarese may be forced to abandon his attempts to implement a high line once again.
This is the Diegos’ team. Valeri and Chara will still be the cornerstones of the squad. Valeri is the carrot and Chara is the stick, but they’re equally important. How important? The Timbers have famously not won a game the last 29 times that Diego Chara didn’t play. While 2018 felt to many like a down year for Valeri, he still somehow set a career high of 22.2 in xG+xA, topping even his 2017 MVP season. But age is becoming an issue, with both players about to turn 33. The front office stills thinks they’ll be at the top of their games in 2019 so is doing their best to reload before their talents begin to decline. One thing is for sure; as go the Diegos, so go the Timbers.
David Guzman struggled a bit last year, but he’ll be the other central anchor next to Chara. Along with centerback, central midfield is the greatest depth concern. Cristian Paredes and Bill Tuiloma will probably be the CDM backups, and T2 signing Renzo Zambrano will hope to get some Open Cup minutes. When Guzman or Chara miss time due to injury or national team callups (Guzman is a shoe-in for Costa Rica’s Gold Cup squad), this could be a place of vulnerability.
Sebastian Blanco came into his own in his second MLS season, and his Expected Goal Chain of 33.9 was tops on the team. Opposite Blanco will likely be Andy Polo, who was brought in last year to fill the hole left by Darlington Nagbe. Polo is speedy, and willing to work hard defensively, but does not offer the offensive threat Nagbe did. Polo’s spot is hardly assured though, as Dairon Asprilla has gotten starts in preseason after a tumultuous 2018 that saw him first used as a striker, then out of the 18, before ending the season as arguably the team’s playoffs MVP. While both Polo and Asprilla have similar skillsets – they’re fast and willing to take on defenders - Asprilla is a bigger offensive threat than Polo while offering nothing defensively. Depending on the game state, I imagine we will frequently see these players substituting for one another.
Depth on the wings will mostly come from Andrés Flores, who blossomed as the season progressed in 2018, but won’t be challenging for a starting spot. The team also has high hopes for T2 signing Marvin Loría, who made his international debut for Costa Rica against the USMNT in January.
Jeremy Ebobisse earned his starting job as the team made a run to MLS cup. He will probably never score more than 12 goals in a season, but still has the potential to be one of the better strikers in MLS. His holdup play and intelligence on the ball are already among the league’s elite. He’s a physical striker who is more than content to lay the ball of to his teammates to finish. Still, he’s only 22 and still hasn’t played all that much - he earned more postseason minutes than regular season minutes last season. He doesn’t fit the mold of the sterotypical goal scorer that teams typically look for up top, but that doesn’t mean he can’t succeed there.
The enigmatic Lucas Melano will likely begin the season as the backup striker. Melano always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time, then fall over. He’s not weighed down by the expectations that were placed on him upon his initial arrival in Portland, which has allowed him to be a perfectly fine backup. Still, his ideal place is probably as a winger rather than striker. It’s notable that beyond homegrown Foster Langsdorf, who doesn’t look to be in Savarese’s rotation, there isn’t a true goal-scoring striker on the team.
While rumors about an attacking designated player signing have abounded, the Timbers appear to have missed out on their top few choices. GM Gavin Wilkinson still seems determined to sign a DP striker, though he has repeatedly said that the team is committed to the continued development of Ebobisse. It may be the summer before the team is able to sign the type of player they’re seeking.
A Note on the Timbers’ 2019 Schedule
Portland is in the process of expanding their stadium, which means they’ll begin the season with 12 consecutive away games and end it with 11 of their final 12 games at home. MLS teams average less than one point per game when on the road, so don’t be surprised when Portland is near the bottom of the Western Conference in June. DC United had a similar schedule in 2018 while their stadium was being built, and had the worst record in the East after their first 13 games. They used their end-of-season home cooking earn a first round playoff game at their new field.
Don’t be surprised to see Portland struggle as they crisscross the country for the first few months of the season. And don’t be surprised once they return home to 25,000 fans cheering them on and they string together a late season run that catapults them back to the playoffs.
In his second year and with a roster more of his choosing, there’s reason to believe that Savarese will be able to avoid some of the midseason fatigue his team suffered last year, and cruise back to the playoffs. The schedule will pose a challenge, but it could set the team up nicely to get hot at the right time. If Wilkinson can sign a proven DP goalscorer, Portland has the potential to make another run to MLS Cup. But if the defensive and midfield depth issues can’t be resolved and the Diegos begin to show their age, the second half of the season could be a formality as the team prepares for a rebuild in 2020.